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Aging forces Japanese temple to axe 'naked festival'

Kokuseki Temple to replace 1,000-year-old event with prayer ceremonies
The 'Sominsai' or 'naked festival' at Kokuseki Temple draws hundreds of participants and thousands of tourists every year © Philip FONG

The 'Sominsai' or 'naked festival' at Kokuseki Temple draws hundreds of participants and thousands of tourists every year © Philip FONG / AFP

Published: February 20, 2024 04:21 AM GMT
Updated: February 20, 2024 05:26 AM GMT

A temple in northwest Japan has decided to bid farewell to a 1,000-year-old festival due to the aging of patrons and participants, triggering dismay among local youth, reports say.

The Kokuseki Temple in Iwate prefecture held the annual “Sominsai” festival one last time on the night of the seventh day of the Lunar New Year, the Sankei Shimbun reported on Feb. 17.

The festival, also known as hadakamatsuri (naked festival) is considered one of the strangest festivals in Japan that involves near-naked men fighting to get their hands on protective talismans for abundant harvests, good health and protection from danger.

During the festival, young men in their undergarments gather in front of the temple as the bell rings. They then cleanse their bodies in the water of the Yamauchi River while chanting “Jasso Joyasa” (Go away evil spirit), defying the cold weather.

The participants then start the hadaka mairi (naked shrine visit) where they tussle with each other to obtain the "sumin-bukuro," a pouch that promises good health and good fortune if held in one's hand.

The decision to end the festival has disappointed local people.

To see the festival go is shocking, said Hidekazu Ito, 47, a member of a local youth club which has about 50 members.

"It's as if there is a hole in my heart. It had always been close to me," Ito said.

Despite the cold weather Ito said he always enjoyed taking part in the festival.

“I can't stop shaking when I'm outside in my underwear, but it makes me feel alive," Ito added.

Ito, who has been a member of the youth club since 2014, said that the club opposed the temple committee’s decision to end the festival.

The temple committee cited the aging of members and the people involved in the preparation of the festival as the main reason for axing it.

Some preparations included cutting trees and the crafting of the wooden talismans.

Other temples across Japan continue to host similar festivals where men wear loincloths and bathe in freezing water or fight over talismans.

However, the rapidly aging society has forced Japan’s temples to modify their rituals or end them, AFP reported.

Some festivals have permitted the participation of women in what were previously men-only events.

The Kokuseki Temple will replace the festival with prayer ceremonies and other ways of continuing spiritual practices, AFP reported.

Yasuo Nishimura, 49, a caregiver from Osaka who participated in the festival, expressed his concern over the declining national birth rate that is even affecting its traditions.

Japan recorded its lowest number of births in 2022, at 799,728.

"Japan is facing a falling birth rate, aging population, and lack of young people to continue various things," Nishimura said.

"It is difficult to continue the same way as in the past.” 

Birth rate concerns have prompted Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to allocate an annual budget of approximately 3.5 trillion yen (US$25 billion) over three years (2024-2027) which includes increased financial support to families, aiming to reverse the alarming decline.

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